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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Writing "AmericanRama, Part 15: A literary agent nibbles the cheese, I turn mouse

Charles Bukowski said, "Fante was my god." 
 By Hugh Gilmore

             Lately, I've been seeking a literary agent to represent me in selling a novel I've worked on for the past two-and-a-half years. In the first few weeks of May this year, I spent entire days researching several websites that list agents and their specialties. After creating a list of suitable agents, I composed letters to them, describing myself and my work, and included whatever samples they requested. I've been very formal, very to-the-point, and very careful not to waste what they are quick to tell you is "their" precious time. (Like doctors who keep you waiting an hour for your one-minute brush-off.)
            By the time I had sent out my 35th query, I'd already received my 10th robo-rejection letter and started feeling like Lucille Ball trying to keep up with the whipped-cream-cake conveyor belt. Discouragement is a constant temptation, but one must play the game as it is played and keep trying, hoping for a break.
            Late in the afternoon of May 19, I began browsing the website of an agent, whom we'll call Mister Goodtaste. I read his agency's statement and his brief biography. This man and his agency are definitely Top Shelf. Too big to be bothered with anonymous me. But then I read the list of his current clients. And I got very excited.
            This man represents Dan Fante! Dan Fante happens to be one of the best, most honest, angry, could-care-less writers in America. His novels include, "Mooch," "Spitting Off Tall Buildings," "86'd," and "Chump Change."
            But now the really big news for me is this: he helped Dan Fante get a publishing contract for his book, "Fante, A Memoir," (soon coming) a memoir Dan wrote about his relationship with his father, John Fante.
            John Fante (1909-1983), was one of the the greatest American novelists most people never heard of. Charles Bukowski said, "Fante was my god." If forced to describe my own writing novel-writing style, I'd say it was J.P. Donleavy ("The Ginger Man") meets John Fante. Nasty, but funny.
            And my computer screen had opened to Mister Goodtaste's website, I swear, just as the mail arrived, bringing me a package containing four John Fante novels I had earlier decided to purchase and reread.
            This was all too coincidental. I had an immediate hunger to read Dan Fante's memoir of his father and felt a deep regret that I'd have to wait months, maybe a year, before it came out.
            What the heck. I'd been sending very formal agent queries, being a good little wannabe writer all day. So I decided I'd write a letter just for the fun of it.
            I wrote: 
"Dear Mister Goodtaste:
"I probably have a snowball's chance in Haiti getting a nod from someone of your stature, but I wanted to part from my usual, methodical mode of querying and risk wasting a precious nickel by telling you something. I am really jealous that you've been able to read the biography of John Fante written by his son. If that book were published today, I'd beat down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get a copy. Congratulations on signing him. 

"Back to work: I'm seeking representation and contacting you because my novel features off-the-wall characters in a weird literary setting. In this story, normal, decent people stumble into a world where the rules are turned upside down. As it runs along, each character has a firm grasp of only one small piece of the big picture in a scenario resembling "The Blind Men and the Elephant" meet Tarentino (though not as raw and mean as the latter).

 "My novel's working title: AmericanaRama. Genre: Literary fiction with a whydunit crime and elements of Bibliomystery. 305 pages. 115,000 words. Status: Finished.

"HOOK: When Claudell and Patrick, two meth-tweaking, rednecked burglars show up in a Midwestern college town offering to sell a stolen library of rare Americana to Klaus Richter, an unstable, immigrant bookshop clerk, the mess-ups that follow expose some strange attitudes towards love, loyalty, and sex among the people drawn into their intrigue. 
            Within three days one woman will be murdered, another kidnapped, and a third, Darlene-the-fence, will spend the final afternoon sitting in a closet armed with two knives, awaiting the man she thinks wants to kill her. In the big showdown at Darlene's hidden cabin in the woods, an improvised auction is forced on two desperate booksellers. Three days of frustration, greed, lust, and anger culminate in Klaus's redemption just before the explosion from which only three people will walk away, changed forever.

            Okay, I wasted a nickel being a little nutty and forward. But, I can't stand sitting in a chair being serious all day. At 5 o'clock I knocked off for the day.
            At seven, masochist that I am, I checked my e-mail. Two more robo-rejection letters. Par for the course. And what's this? A reply already from Mr. Goodtaste. Holy Toledo! Here's what he wrote:

"Dear Hugh:
"This sounds strangely fascinating...can you send me the full after May 31 (I will be at BEA next week and just don't want to be drowning in manuscripts).

Just remain patient, Dan's book will come out soon enough!
Best, Goodtaste."

            I've been floating ever since. And busy. I arose the next morning and starting revising, refreshing, rediting my manuscript. I worked from six to ten hours a day for the next eight days. All of the rest of my life has been on hold.
            As I write this column on Sunday afternoon, Janet, my wife and fellow writer, is reading the story for the first time. For the past two years I have not shared a word about my novel with her, or anyone. I am excited. I hope she likes it and does not find too many mistakes. Tomorrow I'll make her suggested corrections and print a fresh copy. Then I'll box the typescript and mail it first-class on Tuesday morning and cross my fingers.
            Whether he takes a year or a week to read my novel, whether he likes it or he doesn't, I'll have had the pleasure for a while of having been told by a professional that my work "sounds strangely fascinating."
            That's all we folks pecking away down here in the basement need to hear.

(Note: "Goodtaste" is a pseudonym I employ, for many reasons.)

Writing "AmericanaRama, Part 16: And now, the envelope, please: The literary agent has written back.

"... it kept me interested, but I
did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm."

By Hugh  Gilmore

In daring to make public my quest to write a novel and then describe the grueling process of trying to find a literary agent to represent it, I remind myself of Emily Dickinson's line, "How public, like a frog." (From "I'm Nobody, Who Are You.")
            When I last reported on my progress via this column, an agent had read my query letter and synopsis and written to me: " ... sounds strangely fascinating." And he asked me to send a complete manuscript right after the 31st of May. Day of days! Joy of joys! In the infinite progression of stages to being published, I had advanced about three rungs on the hundred-rung ladder.
            I spent eight days tightening up that book (now called "AmericanaRama") and then mailed it off on June 1. All excited on the way to the post office, I was suffused with post-partum depression on the drive back home. I resolved to keep busy, very busy, to make the time pass.
            Silence followed. I resisted the urge to phone or e-mail to ask if the package had arrived. It must have. I'd sent it first class, return receipt. Nothing to do but wait and keep busy. In fact, I wrote a short story that week. A mere seven pages! What a lark, after wrestling a 315-page alligator for two-and-a-half years.
            Then, June 7 arrived. I had just plunked into my chair to watch the opening inning of the Phillies game and decided to check my e-mail via the laptop I keep next to my living room chair.
            There it was — from "him," Mr. Goodtaste.
            I didn't want to open it. I knew the answer would be a digital Yes or No.
            I wanted to go take a walk instead. Or shut off the computer. Or read "The Consolations of Philosophy," by Boethius. I settled for a cool sip of the dry Riesling I'd poured a moment ago. Then I squared my shoulders, balanced the iBook in my lap, held my finger poised in the air, and slowly brought it down to tap out the potentially life-changing command. Open!
            Dear Hugh:

Thanks so much for sending AmericanaRama.  I like the writing very much and the way the story unfolds in a Pulp Fictionesque way.  I also like the insights into the book world and the setting is very defined and clear.  Unfortunately, though, in the end, the story did not quite stand out enough for me...it kept me interested, but I did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm.   
Thus, with regret, I am passing, but I like your writing so hopefully you will contact me in the future.
Best of luck,
"Mr. Goodtaste" (pseudonym I've assigned him till he agrees to become my agent — no free publicity).
            "Oh, that's okay," I said to Janet, my wife and editor, "It's a learning experience."
            And despite the calm I showed, I sank further into the chair than I ever thought I could. Maybe this means my synopsis had sounded more thrilling than the book actually was. Maybe I should pitch to a different kind of agent. Maybe I stink! Maybe I can write good columns occasionally, but don't have what it takes to write a publishable novel. Well, I can self-publish. Yes, but maybe I stink.
            "I need to take a walk," I said. And I left and walked around the track at CHA because there is a huge oak tree near the pole vault pit that I pour my heart out to as I walk past it. And from which I get perspective.
            I rounded the first curve, saw the tree's magnificence, touched my heart with my closed hand and said the names of the persons most important to me who have died, including, most recently my dear mother-in-law, Jessica Goodman. I wished them well and reminded them that I was still here to remember them fondly and keep their names alive.
            And I reminded myself that they'd probably love to trade places with me, even if it meant they'd have to take on my petty problems.
            And then I was past the tree, nothing but blue sky ahead, like a blank slate onto which I could write my future. I had touched the past and now would go on.
            Except ... except ... what the heck did that darned agent mean? What does "...it kept me interested, but I did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm" mean ? Gosh, all this beauty surrounding me and my mind couldn't get past that statement of his.
            Is that what it takes? I must write my stories hoping to make someone "jump out of his chair with super enthusiasm"? I've always aimed to make people sink lower into their cushions. Or curl up in nervous suspense. Or cry. Or say, "yes!" I don't know if I've ever jumped out of my chair while reading. Maybe I stink as a reader also.
            What did I do the morning after the night before? I arose early, determined to give the book another month of dedicated work. Add some plot twists, eliminate some distractions. Streamline it. Unite some disparate elements. Then query some more. And possibly self-publish a small edition for all those of you who have followed me through this long ordeal.
            If it were my life-statement novel, I'd work for another ten years, but gee whiz, it started out just to be an entertainment. Now, like Tar-Baby, I'm stuck to it.

Hugh Gilmore can be reached at Gilmorebookshop@yahoo.com  

Writing "AmericanaRama, Part 17: In the great stare-out, the Literary Agent blinks & Hugh's back in the game

By Hugh Gilmore

            In trying to get my novel, "AmericanaRama," sold, I'm turning into one of those salesmen who gets his foot in the door and won't shut up. How about this? How about that? The process may not be pretty, but I've just bought myself another three weeks of hope.
            To refresh your memory: I'd been sending around a query letter, synopsis, and brief self-biography to various (36 at last count) literary agents, trying to find one who wanted to represent my book (i.e. sell it to an editor or publisher).
            After 34 robo-rejections, #35 — "Mr. Goodtaste," I call him — wrote back, saying, "Sounds strangely fascinating, send me the complete manuscript around June 1."
            I did. For one wonderful week I hung suspended in air, inflated by hope. And then his reply came:
            "Thanks so much for sending AmericanaRama.  I like the writing very much and the way the story unfolds in a Pulp Fictionesque way.  I also like the insights into the book world and the setting is very defined and clear.  Unfortunately, though, in the end, the story did not quite stand out enough for me...it kept me interested, but I did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm.  Also, the "panties" theme, while unusual, in the end kept me more at bay than involved.
             "Thus, with regret, I am passing, but I like your writing so hopefully you will contact me in the future.
            "Sincerely, 'Mr. Goodtaste.'"

            I loved his compliments, but his final verdict left me stunned, down-in-the-dumps, listless, and devoid of confidence. And puzzled about how one writes something that makes a reader "jump out of his chair with super enthusiasm."
            The choice was clear, however: try another approach or give up on two-and-a-half-years' work. I had before me a real, live agent who answered his e-mail. One agent like that in hand was worth a hundred agents in the New York bush. I wrote him again last Tuesday.
            I thanked him for the compliments and the critique. I told him I had rewritten the entire book, incorporating his advice. And not just one rewrite, but had done three (!) rewrites, for which I gave one-sentence descriptions. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
            Gulp. Three hours later, an e-mail arrived from Mr. Goodtaste. What follows, since it is a masterpiece of brevity, is his complete response to my offer to submit a revised version:
"Hugh: 3 might work but I am going to be on vacation...maybe you can send me the version in mid July. Best, Goodtaste."

            "3 might work."
            Can you imagine how that little gem could energize a hungry writer? And send him scurrying for his word processor? I've been banging away since then. Hope floats me once again.
            Some of you may be disappointed in me for what follows, but it's more instructive to tell the truth. I am busily making superficial changes throughout my book. You'll need examples to understand.
            First, my bad guy's name was Klaus Richter. He was a German immigrant, a grad student in physics, who failed to finish his Ph.D. and has stayed on to work in a bookstore in a city not unlike Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is virtually a sociopath. Intelligent about everything but people. Huge, frightening, self- pitying, but never giving sympathy to others. His is one of five points-of-view in this book, but he's the catalyst. He begins and ends the book.
            Klaus Richter is now Bruno Khoury, a Lebanese Christian, given a French-y name by his parents during the time Lebanon was heavily influenced by French culture. When his family died during the Civil Wars in Beirut, his uncle, Salim, brought him to America, where a large Lebanese population lives in the Detroit area.
            I transformed Klaus to Bruno for several reasons. First and foremost, very few, and I mean very few, people who read literate fiction nowadays read fiction concerning the affairs of Americans. The shelves of the literate fiction readers I know are filled with novels that concern the lives of Europeans, Asians or Middle Easterners. It's the literary equivalent of driving an imported car or eating imported cheese and drinking imported wine — a hallmark of exalted taste.
            Yes, Klaus was European, but Germans are still not perceived sympathetically and I wanted his new incarnation as Bruno to be felt as a warmer character. Oh, did I say that the agent, Mr. Goodtaste, is himself a German immigrant and possibly sick of negative German stereotypes? My bad.
            Next — and this is where I really wimped out: the "panties theme." I avoided mentioning this last week, because it's a family newspaper. As a plot device, a pair of ladies drawers are stolen during a burglary by a guy with that proclivity. They are given away to Klaus, who is so untutored in the world of love, romance, and knickers that he practically swoons over them. When he discards them, they become found and get embedded in the center of a murder investigation. Even though they have nothing to do with anything. They've got DNA on them and that's too good a clue for the lead detective to pass up.
            Nonetheless, the level of detail at which I'd described the peregrinations of these unmentionables made me uncomfortable in recommending the book to persons of taste. And they certainly kept the agent "more at bay than involved." I guess there's "noir" and there's "gross noir," or something.
            Off with the pants and on with a flower-shaped hair barrette, taken from the crime scene by Bruno (a witness, not the perp). When the barrette turns out to be tainted by traces of the victim's blood, we've got an ironic plot twist, a Hitchcock-ian pursuit of an innocent man from a new angle.
            There are more changes, but those are crucial. How do I justify them, you might ask? After all, what about my 'artistic integrity'? My answer is that the heart of my book is contained in the insights and observations I have to offer about humans and their hopes, dreams, and fates.
            What uniforms they wear matters very little to me.

Hugh Gilmore is reachable at  Gilmorebookshop@yahoo.com


Writing "AmericanaRama" Part 18 Finale: At last, Popping the Cork with Mr. Goodtaste

Here I sit with the impatient bottle,
feeling the double tragedy of the popped cork.

by Hugh Gilmore      

            Finally, an answer, and an occasion for popping the cork.
            For the past two years and seven months I have written, rewritten, revised, written, rewritten, and written again a "whydunit" mystery story I hope to get published. Along the way, the book has ballooned to more than 325 pages, reduced to 265, and then slipped back up to 299, where it currently wobbles.
            During this time period, the title of "this little entertainment meant to be dashed off in a year" has changed from "Lovesick in Ann Arbor," to "When the Movie Let Out," to "The Great Chain of Lesser Beings," to its current "AmericanaRama." Along the way, the book briefly also ran under the name of "Malcolm's Wine."
            This "Malcolm's Wine" title is very appropriate to today's column for a reason I'll make clear soon. The original impetus for writing this story came about as follows: When my son, Colin, was born in 1969, I laid down a bottle of Kopke Oporto, 1970, (1969 was not a vintage year) Vintage Port Wine for him — to be given him on his 21st birthday. He died, however, in an automobile accident, when he was 18. That was awful. And a terribly life-changing experience for all of us who knew and loved him.
            In the meantime, the bottle of 1970 vintage port remained in my small basement wine rack, growing richer and more entrancing by the year. What should I do with it? I wanted to smash it against a tree or throw it in a river. By the year 2005 it was expected to have become quite a lovely brew — it seemed a shame that no one would ever know how grand and sweet it supposedly was. Perhaps instead of destroying it, I would bury it and some lucky person would find it. Or I'd give it to a street person who was nickel-and-dime hustling to get up the price of a bottle of wine.
            I'd been advised several times by well-intentioned people to drink it myself — on his birthday, perhaps. Here's to you, Colin! But I couldn't do it, as curious as I was to know the pleasures of that wine after it had ripened through the years. I can't express why not, but I couldn't. Perhaps the wine represented all the sweetness and richness I'd never know about the boy himself as he matured.
            One day in 2007 I was downstairs rummaging for something else and saw Colin's wine, and the thought came to me that ever since he died in 1988 I've had the luxury of feeling I had all the time in the world to decide what to do with that wine. But: what if my house was burglarized and that bottle of wine was stolen? How would I feel? Would I shrug and say, "That's the fate of that bottle"? Or would I try to get it back? It suddenly occurred to me that even more hurtful than the loss of the wine would be that I'd been robbed of the right to decide the bottle's fate. 'Choice' had been stolen from me.
            I decided to spend a year writing a mystery story about that very theme. A father who had laid down a vintage port for his son, who then died, has his wine stolen. He decides to go after the thieves.
            The book I wound up writing has that "pursuit of the wine thieves" element embedded in its core, but the writing of it was like herding cats, as they say, and numerous other characters and sub-plots evolved until it became the book I have been "shopping" for the past four months.
            As I wrote a query letter and synopsis to agents daily and received rejections daily, only one bright spot of hope appeared, an agent I have given the nom de guerre, "Mister Goodtaste."
His first e-mail to me said, "Hugh: Sounds strangely fascinating. Please send complete manuscript by June 1."
            His second e-mail said, 

 Dear Hugh,
              I like the writing very much and the way the story unfolds in a Pulp Fictionesque way.  I also like the insights into the book world and the setting is very defined and clear.  Unfortunately, though, in the end, the story did not quite stand out enough for me...it kept me interested, but I did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm ...   
Thus, with regret, I am passing, but I like your writing, so hopefully you will contact me in the future. 
                       Best of luck, Goodtaste

            I asked permission to revise and send again. He said, Yes, send in mid-July. I did. This week I heard from him:

Dear Hugh:
Thanks so much for sending the revision.  I do like the novel and it is very well written, but despite the changes I don't really feel compelled to take it on in this tough fiction market. I like it, but I don't love, love it. So with regret, I am stepping aside for an agent who will totally go for it.  Best of luck, Goodtaste.

            So there you have it: "very well written ... I like it, but I don't love it, love it."

            I was disappointed, but at least the tension and waiting were over with. I went upstairs and decided to sit on my back patio and contemplate the beauties of a summer evening and enjoy a glass of cool pinot grigio. There was none in the refrigerator. I went back downstairs, where I'd put a bottle in the wine rack just yesterday. When I turned on the light, I was immediately surprised to see the wine shelf covered with what at first seemed to be hundreds of tiny, dead insects. I picked one up. It felt like plastic. Exploded pieces of something black. And at once, I saw the bottle of Kopke Oporto 1970 on its side, just a dry, open mouth, blacker than a black hole, the top of the cork blown away, the lower half floating in the bottle.
            Perhaps twenty percent of the wine remained, the rest evaporated. I knew what I must do. I grabbed the bottle and ran upstairs to the sink. "Janet, you're my witness," I said. I cleared the few dishes from the sink, readied myself, and poured quickly so I would not be tempted to taste what life has forbidden me to know.


Worse than the Enemies of Reading: The Enemies of Writing

                By Hugh Gilmore

On July 21, 2000, without any announcements, not to anyone, just to keep a promise I'd made to myself, I left home at dawn and drove over to my bookshop. Once there, I did not turn the lights on, or open the window curtain, or flip the Closed sign.
            Instead, I sat at my desk, opened a marbleized school notebook, laid three Bic Fine-Point pens nearby, and started writing my first novel, titled "Garner." As I began, the sun had just emerged from behind the rear of the Eichler-Moffley Real Estate building's roof, across the street, and cast a sharp beam of light across the edge of my desk. Within minutes, the light created a glare on the white sheets I 'd started to write on. Too bright. I leaned over the notebook, and blocked the harsh gleam with my head and shoulders, thus putting my face close to the words as I wrote. 
            Hunched like that, blocking out my view of the desk, and the shop, and the building, and the street, and the community, I plunged further into the world I was creating. I felt my hands were riding a magic pen as the scrawl appeared on the page just below my nose: words that told of a fatal train ride from Lynchburg, Virginia to Knoxville, Tennessee back in 1920. I'd researched those regions and that era for months and now felt as though I'd slipped past a gauzy barrier and entered that long-lost world.
            Exciting things happened as I wrote. A man would accost a stranger he should have ignored. A boy would look up from a railroad embankment and see another boy sitting in a leafless tree. A woman would put her hand on a door knob and start to turn it. I warned her, "No, don't do that." She didn't listen. None of them heeded. I was merely their witness as they acted out their destinies.
            And each day, by the time the sun and shadow had moved over the real estate building, crossed the street, and came to loom behind the building that contained me, I'd have finished my tenth hand-written page. I could quit for the day. I'd drive home and read the installment to my wife, Janet. She told me she thrilled to each new installment as though she'd been shown the daily rushes of some great new film.
            So it went, day after day, as July moved into August. Slip into the shop, hoping not to be seen by someone who wanted to buy books. Write till I reached my quota. Slip out of the shop, go home and read aloud. Dream of what might happen tomorrow.
            And then, at the end of November, six entire notebooks later, a terrible thing happened.
            The story ended. Bang! Whimper.
            All the writing teachers and instruction books will tell you the same true thing: to be a writer, you must write. So far, so good. But in a lower voice — or maybe I wasn't listening so well — they'll also tell you that after the story ends, the work begins. I think I wrote the first draft of that book, 1200 pages, in four months.
            I will probably never again write a book by hand. The next step was to type it on my word processor and I am a slow typist. Although I revised as I transcribed, I wanted a typed version that was faithful to the script. After that, I rewrote and revised every day, choking the life out of the book because I did not know how to create scenes. I thought revision meant rewriting every sentence to make it gleam. In doing so I managed to take a lively story and crash it into a wall.
            However, by spring of the year 2001, I had reworked a few scenes well enough to enter a chapter in a writing contest. Lo and behold, I won First Place at the Philadelphia Writer's Conference in the category "Novel-Character." As anyone would, I took that award as a "message from the universe" to keep going. I paid an editor/consultant/ script doctor to read and comment. Then I would seek publication.
            Her comments were so lukewarm and unhelpful, however, that I didn't know what to do next, other than put the book in the drawer and start another novel: "The Marx Brothers meet the Three Stooges in Harry Harlow's Motherless Monkey Lab." (More or less.) Its hero was a bookseller who falls in love with a one-armed, married woman. Two years and some months later, I "finished" that novel, and lacking confidence in its merit, I laid it, too, in the drawer, atop the first one.
            And two years after that, I finished a book-length memoir, "My Three Suicides - A Success Story." Not kidding. Also in the drawer. It was well written, but needed time in the smoke house. Three books in seven years.
            And then I started the novel, "AmericanaRama," which I've been describing via this column for the past two-and-a-half years. It's good enough that I'm making a sincere effort to sell it. This week I mailed the manuscript to the literary agent, Mr. Goodtaste, whom I've been telling you about. Ball's in his court. I'll let you know soon what he has to say.
            So, here's the occasion for this column: I just happened to look up after mailing my manuscript this week, and I noticed that July 21 was here and ten years of my life have gone by. Ten years.
            I've written three novels, a memoir, and about a hundred and thirty columns for this paper in those ten years. In a very real way, I have nothing to show for all the thousands of pages I've written.
            But in another way: I vowed when I was young that I'd be a "writer" some day. And I did nothing more than dream about it most of my life as I earned my living, raised a family, and had my fun in the sun. And all along, I've had this fear that I might come to the end of my life and feel a deep regret that I never seriously tried to satisfy the small talent and huge hunger I was born with.
            Ten years now. If nothing happens, it won't be for lack of trying. That I can accept.
            Offered as hope to all the other dreamers out there.
            Contact Hugh at Gilmorebookshop@yahoo.com